Ducks in Albemarle

I’ve had quite a terrible duck county list for the past couple years, mostly due to the fact that I had never gotten into county listing, and I had only been seriously birding for one winter season. With the arctic cold front freezing northern lakes, I was hoping to add some much-needed waterfowl to my Albemarle County list.

The duck extravaganza began on the eighth of January with a stunning male Redhead that appeared on a small patch of exposed water on my pond. The surrounding ice allowed for close views. A county lifer.

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Redhead

The next day his mate joined him.

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Redhead pair

After school the next day, my sister drove me over to the lake behind Monticello High School.  There, I snagged my county lifer Common Merganser, a nice rare bird for Albemarle, and also a great addition to my school list.

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Common Merganser

Back at my house, the continuing Redheads were joined my a Northern Shoveler hen, another great yardbird and county lifer.

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Redheads and shoveler 

I was able to get some nice action shots when the bird took off.

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Northern Shoveler in flight

The Redheads left after the pond began to thaw, but she stayed another three and a half weeks.

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Northern Shoveler on the thinning ice 

Lastly, my sister drove my down to Scottsville, a small town on the James River. There, I checked a nearby pond at dusk, finding a Green-singed Teal and some Buffleheads in the pond. There were several Gadwall circling above, and a pair of Northern Pintails flying away. Both were county lifers! The Gadwall was seriously overdue, but the Northern Pintail was quite the nice county bird. Here’s some poor documentation:

Distant flocks of several hundred Canada Geese flew on the horizon, most likely hosting Cackling Geese. Another county lifer for another time.

After seeing five county birds in a week and reaching a county list of 185, I started getting into the county listing thing. My next goal: reaching 200 species for Albemarle County by the end of 2018!

 

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Winter Expedition Part Two: Richmond, NoVA, and the Valley

Day Three

Our phone alarms went off at 7:30, and we slowly emerged from the warm sheets. The AC wasn’t working last night and it was too hot, so I by mistake broke the window trying to crack it open for some fresh air.

We dressed ourselves with the window wide open, letting in frigid gusts of wind.

After a quick breakfast we carried our luggage into 8 inches of winter wonderland, and set off shortly in the birder mobile.

Once we got going, we began to feel the adrenaline of our second leg of the trip. There were several spots we had planned to stop at in and around Richmond for waterfowl before setting off for Northern Virginia.

We pulled over on the side of the road to look at a large flock of Redheads and Ring-necked Ducks before returning to the van. After several minutes we arrived at a park with a large pond covered with waterfowl. We raised our binoculars to find a couple hundred domestic geese and mallards.

Another stop, this time on the James, provided zero species due to the river being frozen.

We were running out of luck, and made our way to Brown’s Island, a riverside park in Downtown Richmond.

The sidewalk led to a long walking bridge that crossed the James, so we continued onto it, straddling the edge of the tranquil, iced-over river to the right, and the chaotic, rocky rapids to the left.

The bitter-cold wind burnt our faces as we scanned the distant gull flocks for rarities. American Black Ducks, Mallards, and hybrids of the two were tossed around in the rushing waters just below us.

It became unbearably cold, so we retreated to the van.

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Richmond riverfront

We left the city limits and arrived at Swift Creek Reservoir, a good duck spot in Midlothian. The majority of the lake was frozen.

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A Mallard lit up by the snow

The birds were far too distant, so we drove to a second vantage point across the reservoir.

The second spot provided Canvasback, scaup, and lots of American Coot, Hooded Mergansers, and Northern Shovelers. A group of Bald Eagles stood on the ice, watching the nearby raft of ducks.

Next stop was The Walmart Supercenter in Colonial Heights, often affectionately referred to as the “Gullmart” by Virginia birders.

We arrived to find about a thousand Ring-billed Gulls standing on the frozen over pond, with another several hundred circling above the nearby landfill. Within thirty seconds of beginning the scan, Tucker spotted a white-winged gull, which after finding the bird was identified as an Iceland Gull (kumlien’s).

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Kumlien’s Gull

We also found a Laughing/Franklin’s Gull, which was identified as just a Laughing Gull after it raised its head.

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Laughing Gull

Hand-feeding Ring-billed Gulls Cheez-its was another highlight.

We completed our route for the Richmond area, so we set our GPS for a rural farm in King William County: the Say’s Phoebe spot.

This time, we drove over to the correct side of the property, and began the search. Huntings dogs barked loudly, driving flocks of creepers, chickadees, and nuthatches out of the area. Some dogs were friendlier than others, and one individual befriended us during our search.

We split into groups to search, and my curious friend stayed at my heels. I scanned the cedars, cow patties, and even a junco and bluebird roost under a shed for the phoebe.

Our long search proved unsuccessful, so we began the next leg of our journey to Northern Virginia. We arrived at our hotel in Alexandria, and spent the evening playing cards and eating snacks from the vending machine.

Day Four: 

The day started early, as all birding days start. We hit the ground running, arriving at Occoquan Regional Park shortly after sunrise. A Glaucous Gull had been continuing here, but our morale was lessened when we only found a some Ring-billed Gulls, Canada Geese, Redhead, and a Red-breasted Merganser on the Occoquan River.

Nonetheless, the big, bold, and beautiful white-winged gull was right there. The entire flock was then flushed by a Bald Eagle.

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Gulls

The Glaucous Gull flew by in the morning light, offering amazing views.

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Glaucous Gull

We left the gull after a while and arrived shortly at Pohick Bay a Regional Park. The park was simply a boat ramp and dock with an expansive view of a large section of the Potomac River.

Scopes were unloaded and we walked out into the dock, finding a couple hundred ducks on a small portion of open water surrounded by ice.

The raft was primarily aythya ducks: Redhead, Ring-necked, and both scaup species.

After only five minutes of picking through the flock, Gabriel yelled, “I think I have a Tufted!” Shocked, Baxter quickly found the bird in his own scope, saying that the bird was a hybrid with a scaup due to the gray back and short tuft.

I eventually got on the bird and had horrible views. The three of us tried to help Ezra, Theo, and Tucker get on the bird but lost the chance. The eagles started to become more active, and the ducks began to stir before taking off and flying upriver. The moment was bittersweet.

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Bald Eagle

We began to walk after the flock, and came across a duck hunter who said that there were tens of thousands of ducks a little further upriver, and that some of his friends were already out on the river hunting.

Knowing that all of those birds were going to be flushed down to us, we excitedly continued up the river to a better observation point. There, several thousand ducks sat on the ice and water, and swarms of hundreds flew toward us, fleeing from the hunters.

In awe, we started looking for interesting ducks in the masses. Thousands of aythya ducks floated on the water, and Tundra Swans flew overhead.

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Tundra Swans

Gunshots were heard upriver, and after a few seconds, swarms of pintail, gadwall, wigeon, and black duck approached.

After having picked through the flock fairly thoroughly, Baxter, Gabriel, and I got down to business. We started a tape and assigned species to one another. Each of us counted individuals of a species by scope glasses, and then dictated our counts into the microphone.

We found a red headed Eurasian Wigeon amongst a sea of green headed American Wigeons.

Every few minutes we switched shifts, and those who had scanned returned to the van to warm up.

After about an hour of this, we finished our counts, and had tallied up about four thousand Redhead. Approximately two thousand individuals of each of the following species were counted; Ring-necked Duck, American Black Duck, and Gadwall; one thousand for Canvasback and Lesser Scaup; around five hundred for Northern Pintail and American Wigeon; smaller numbers of Greater Scaup, Hooded Merganser, Common Merganser, Bufflehead, Northern Shoveler, Green-winged Teal, Common Goldeneye, and Ruddy Duck; and one individual for Eurasian Wigeon and Tufted Duck x Scaup sp.

We were quite impressed with our numbers, and had seen another ten thousand unidentifiable ducks on the opposite side of the river.

Our celebration of a successful duck outing commenced at Five Guys, with burgers, fries, and shakes.

Our stomachs full, we set off for Laurel Hill Equestrian Center. There we looked for a long-continuing Clay-colored Sparrow, a bird I saw at the end of last year, but one we all wanted to get on our 2018 yearlists nice and early. We were successful.

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Clay-colored Sparrow

We headed west to Sully Woodlands to search for the Northern Shrike that has called the park it’s home for two winters.

The little predatory songbird was nowhere to be found; the sparrows and finches did not live in fear, more evidence that the masked butcher wasn’t present.

We thought it was worth checking the other park the shrike was occasionally visited, but had the same luck.

As evening approached, we continued to Dulles Airport, entered the parking garage, and ascended to the top floor. We had a 360 degree view of runways, terminals, and open fields.

Several Short-eared Owls worked the fields. Then, a white beacon appeared in the distance: a Snowy Owl in flight. We had found what we were looking for, and watched it as it  soared down the runway, before setting back down in the ground.

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My best Snowy Owl photo

Once it reached dusk, the winds picked up, and my scope tipped over: the final blow. The internal lens had been knocked ajar, and my beloved scope had been reduced to a maraca.

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RIP scope

We had a strong craving for ethnic food, and seeked out a nearby Ethiopian restaurant. The plates were meant for sharing, and the carnivores in the group (me and Baxter) feasted on lamb, beef, chicken, and a variety of vegetables on injera.

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Ethiopian Food

A good end of the day.

Day Five: 

We woke up exhausted. The usual packing of things began, but this was our last morning.

Back at Sully Woodlands, we found no shrike.

We returned to Dulles parking garage in hopes of seeing Rough-legged Hawks. Within a couple minutes of scanning, the ones with scopes spotted an extremely distant hawk. Once it banked, it appeared to be all black, and had a strong dihedral and acrobatic flight: a dark morph Rough-legged Hawk! Here is the best photo I could manage:

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A black speck

Satisfied, we headed west into the Shenendoah Valley, arriving at Sky Meadows State Park: specifically, the Bridle Trail.

We got out of the van and walked over to a nearby silo, stuck our heads in an opening, and ticked off Barn Owl for our yearlists.

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A triggered Barn Owl

As I was playing around with my settings and trying to get a sharp photo, I heard Gabriel and Ezra yell “Golden Eagle!” I quickly squirmed out of the silo and Baxter and I ran as quickly as possible. We arrived, panting, to find everyone staring at a gorgeous young Golden Eagle circling high above the rolling grasslands.

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Look at that gorgeous golden nape and those white wing patches and tail band

The bird ascended until it was out of view, a good rarity for Fauquier County. We continued to Blandy Experimental Farm and Arboretum.

We parked and got out, checking the towering conifers for roosting Northern Saw-whet and Long-eared Owls. The nearby feeders were active with chickadees, woodpeckers, and jays.

We walked out to a meadow and then to a small wetland, where we hoped to find American Tree Sparrows. It was relatively quiet, so we walked over to another spot for them.

The rolling fields dotted with cedars hosted few birds, only a mockingbird and Turkey Vultures. We had been searching for a long time, and were about to give up. Then, we suddenly flushed a group of a dozen sparrows that called in flight; they gave the distinctive call of the tree sparrow.

We pursued them, and got good yet brief views of the striking birds. I only managed a poor photo of one bird’s rear end.

Having gotten all of our targets for Blandy and Sky Meadows, we decided to head down the Shenendoah Valley to Rockingham and Augusta counties: Gabriel’s stomping grounds.

Just after leaving Blandy and turning onto Route 17, we spotted a hawk flying just above the roof of our van. Those who had the left seats of the van were able to catch a better glimpse of the bird suddenly said “Rough-legged Hawk! Rough-legged Hawk! Pull the car over!”

Seconds later we were all standing on the side of the road, watching as the apparition hovered twenty feet above the highway median: a juvenile light morph Rough-legged Hawk.

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Rough-legged Hawk

He landed momentarily on the side of the road before lifting back up and flying off.

Completely enthralled, we posted it on the listserv, and discovered it was only the fourth Clarke County record.

We ate lunch at McDonalds. I only had five dollars left, so I hesitantly tried a cheap Filet O’ Fish. I talked with some local waterfowl hunters who had seen some Snow Geese at a nearby pond. We would’ve liked to go see them, but were loosing daylight.

Back on the road, we drove down 81 through the Shenendoah Valley, with the Blue Ridge to the east, and the Appalachian to the west.

We entered the quaint town of Dayton, where horse-drawn Amish buggies and automobiles coexisted. The road continued through to Silver Lake, a small lake just outside of the town.

The near side of the lake was quite busy; the banks were dotted with the unattended bikes of Amish, who were skating on the thick ice and fishing into the open waters.

The far side was made up of thin ice and open waters, which were covered with ducks. Mallards dominated the scene, followed by the Gadwall. There were some Northern Pintails, Lesser Scaup, Greater Scaup, and our primary target, a Long-tailed Duck that was actively feeding. We walked out onto the ice to get a  little closer to the ducks: it was completely frozen to the lake bottom.

Our next stop, just down the road, was Edgebrier Park. We walked past some Muscovy Ducks and under a bridge, where we found a large flock of Canada Geese on the river. Closer inspection revealed the birds we were looking for: 37 Greater White-fronted Geese, and the high count for the state.

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Greater White-fronted Geese

Back in the car, we raced the sun to Fishersville Rock Quarry, a body of water so deep, that isn’t doesn’t freeze over. We walked up the hill, finding many assorted ducks, Canada Geese, and one Cackling Goose.

East to Waynesboro, we were on our way to the location of a continuing Trumpeter Swan. We arrived to find that the gorgeous, all white swan had stuck around for us.

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A banded Trumpeter Swan

After admiring the rare beauty, we headed to our final birding location of the trip: the Invista Ponds. Simply the entrance road to a fiber power plant, the ponds hosted Black-crowned Night-Herons. We found two of them within a few minutes.

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Black-crowned Night-Heron

We departed and met Gabriel and Ezra and Theo’s dads at the Rockfish Gap Hawkwatch. We had found 124 species during the five days, and travelled all across the state: from Virginia Beach to Clarke County. We had endured freezing tempatures: all the way down to windchills of -8 degrees.

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The birders and the van

Ezra, Theo, and Gabriel departed, and the Beamers and I headed east.

Dinner was at Crozet Pizza. Baxter and I shared the “Loaded Fries”, in honor of the traditional “Mega Fries” we never got to eat in Chincotegaue.

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Loaded Fries 

We made it back to Charlottesville, ending a truly epic birding trip.

Winter Expedition Part One: Chasing and Coastal Birding

Day One:

Baxter, Tucker, Gabriel, and I loaded our gear into the 15-seater van in the pre-dawn light. Ezra and Theo arrived shortly, and we set off at 6:00 sharp. I felt a strong sense of déjà vu; one year ago I embarked on a similar trip with the same people.

The purpose of the trip was simple: to add as many species to our Virginia Yearlist as possible.

The drive on 64 east was long, but we stayed wide awake planning our route for the day and quizzing each other on bird calls.

We arrived at a rural farm in Middle Neck: we were searching for a Say’s Phoebe.

Just about every bird was a yearbird for me, from the Savannah and Chipping Sparrows to the bluebirds and meadowlarks.

We spent a great deal of time searching for the continuing rarity until we realized we were on the wrong side of the house. We walked up towards the house and back down a hill, passing a group of hunters preparing for a morning hunt.

On the correct side, we scanned everywhere in search of the phoebe: from cow patties to fence posts. No luck. Bald Eagles and Killdeer were the highlights.

A forty-five minute drive east brought us to the small town of West Point, located on a peninsula at the confluence of the Pamunkey and Mattaponi Rivers. A Snowy Owl had been seen here recently on docks and buildings throughout the town.

We stopped at the main dock, finding no owl, but a nice raft of Canvasback. We spent over an hour scouring the whole town in search of the illusive ghost. Noon was quickly approaching and we had nothing to show for it.

We began the drive to Hampton.

Shortly, I recieved a text alert of the Black-throated Gray Warbler that had been continuing in Williamsburg. Baxter yelled, “Mom, set the GPS to 103 Exeter Court!” This wasn’t our first time chasing a bird here.

We knocked on the front door and Brian, the homeowner and a birder, let us in. We sat in the living room, scanning the holly trees the warbler was so fond of.

Over an hour passed, and we had only added a couple yearbirds, so we departed.

We entered Hampton and pulled in to the Buckroe Beach parking lot, unloaded our scopes, and maneuvered through the maze of Ring-billed Gulls that dotted the lawn. We set up our scopes, finding a Common Goldeneye.

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My first adult male Common Goldeneye

Horned Grebes, a Red-throated Loon, Black Scoters, and Surf Scoters sat on the water.

We drove south to Fort Monroe, where we had little luck, aside from a nice flock of American Wigeons.

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American Wigeons

We crossed the Hampton Bay-Bridge Tunnel into Norfolk, and parked at the Thirsty Camel, a bar that happened to have a nice beach behind it.

Greater Scaup and Surf Scoters foraged along the beach.

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Surf Scoter

We checked out another beach in Norfolk at dusk, and ended our first and rather unsuccessful day at Olive Garden and the hotel pool. We had learned our lesson: don’t chase rarities, find them!

Day Two:

We woke up bright and early and packed our things.

We arrived at the breakfast area, where the local news was playing on the television. A huge winter storm was going to hit Coastal Virginia in the evening, and the forecast called for a foot of snow. Our plans ruined, we abandoned Virginia Beach and decided to bird Northampton for the day.

We got on to the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel, and scanned the rafts of ducks for eiders and White-winged Scoters. A chunky cormorant flew left of the van: a Great Cormorant! The bird continued to fly alongside us before a strong gust of wind pushed it back.

The tunnel rose high above the bay, offering a stunning views, before descending towards Fisherman’s Island.

The road continued over the island’s scrubby, barren habitat and sandy beaches.

We then crossed expansive saltmarsh, and into the familiar towering pine stands of the Eastern Shore.

After a few minutes, we turned onto a farm road that led to Magothy Bay Natural Area Preserve.

We unloaded the van and started down a trail through thick second growth. Some Palm Warblers called, and Yellow-rumps swarmed overhead. As we walked down the path, a loud rustling sound came from the brush, and a noisy American Woodcock flew off.

The second growth transformed into pine woodlands, and the woodlands led to saltmarsh. Swamp Sparrows were common and quite vocal.

A good sized flock of ducks flew north over Magothy Bay: Common Mergansers, a rarity in Northampton County. Baxter yelled over for me to snag a proof shot.

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Common Mergansers

There were fifteen, which was the new high count for the county.

An Orange-crowned Warbler called from the brush, showed itself briefly, and flew over the marsh and back into the woods.

The saltmarsh was completely frozen, so we walked out into the grasses. One Sedge Wren was very vocal, and a Virginia Rail gave its grunt call. Yellow-rumped Warblers were abundant.

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Yellow-rumped Warbler in saltmarsh

Despite a thorough sweep of the area, no sharp-tailed sparrows were found.

We continued back into the woodlands, and Brown-headed Nutchatches squeaked from the tops of pines. Another Orange-crowned Warblers made a brief appearance.

We checked Magothy Road and had the same luck with sparrows.

Our next stop was Cheriton Landfill, the same place we all had seen a Lucy’s Warbler a exactly a year ago. The lake was unfrozen, and we scanned the hundreds of Canada Geese for rarities.

Redheads, Ring-necks, wigeons, and shovelers were the most abundant ducks. Gulls and vultures constantly circled overhead.

We crossed the peninsula and arrived at Cape Charles, a quaint beach town on the Chesapeake Bay.

After parking on the street, we walked over to the dunes, finding two little frosty, pale Savannah Sparrows perched on a sign: Ipswich Sparrows!

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Ipswich Sparrows

A subspecies lifer for most of us, we watched the birds for a while before they flew down into the dunes.

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Ipswich Sparrow

We walked on the pier, which went over the beach and out to a jetty. The tempatures were so low that parts of the bay had become frozen over, and large chunks of ice piled up against the rocks: a sight that one would not expect to see in Virginia.

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American Oystercatchers

Several Purple Sandpipers worked the rocks, probing crevices with their long, decurved bills.

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Purple Sandpiper and Oystercatchers

Two more groups of Common Mergansers flew overhead: one of eight and the other of five. The freezing conditions were probably bringing groups south down the peninsula.

During the drive south to Kiptopeke State Park, we decided to skip Chincoteague due to the blizzard. Instead, we would spend the night in Richmond and head up to Northern Virginia for the last two days.

Once we arrived at the Kiptopeke Fishing Pier, we unloaded and walked through the lawn. We were here to look for two Snow Buntings that had been continuing for the past month. Two large field birds were flushed up ahead, and they flew directly above us, showing their snowy white and buffy plumage, and giving a variety of flight calls before setting back down on the shortgrass lawn.

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Snow Bunting

They also flew up onto the railing of the pier.

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Snow Bunting

After enjoying the buntings for a while, we got back in the car and crossed the Bay-Bridge Tunnel back into Virginia Beach. Our last birding stop of the day was Stumpy Lake, where we hoped to see a continuing Black-legged Kittiwake that had been around for a couple months.

We arrived to find the lake’s open waters replaced with a thick sheet of ice, and the towering Bald Cyprus trees covered with snow. Countless Great Blue Herons stood still on the lake like statues, slowly becoming engulfed in the snowfall. Bald Cyprus forests and snow made for an unusual combination.

The lake was void of gulls, so we sadly departed for Richmond.

Dinner was at Cava, a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Richmond. We finished off dinner with a couple games of foosball before settling into our hotel and playing card games.

 

Yearly Summary: 2017

My 2017 birding year got started at 7:30 am on Tuesday, January 3rd:

We arrived at a small home in the suburbs of Williamsburg, and sat inside the house staring at the feeders, until a Western Tanager swooped down to the feeder to grab a peanut before flying off.

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Western Tanager

It was the regular homeschool birder squad (Me, Gabriel, Baxter, Tucker, Ezra, and Theo), and we spent the week birding coastal Virginia, accumulating a total of 155 species.

Throughout the week we saw notable species such as Lucy’s Warbler (VA first record), Common Eider, Purple Sandpiper, Great Cormorant, Red-necked Grebe, Lark Sparrow, White-crowned Sparrow (Gambel’s), Harlequin Duck (county rarity in a saltmarsh!), Black-headed Gull, Eurasian Wigeon, Northern Shrike, American Tree Sparrow, and Black-throated Gray Warbler (D.C. first record). We also had closeouts on geese, ducks (we saw a flock of 50,000 Aythya), rails, wrens, and saltmarsh ammodramus.

For the rest of January, I headed west to the mountains.

Highland County added Golden Eagle and Ruffed Grouse, while Northwestern Virginia added several owl species, including Long-eared, Short-eared, and Barn.

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Long-eared Owl

February started in Downtown Richmond, where I saw Glaucous Gull and Painted Bunting at the same location.

We stopped in Hampton for Snow Bunting, which immediately became my favorite bird.

At dawn the following day, we witnessed a massive irruption of Razorbills, and recorded 1,500 northbound individuals at Little Island Pier, along with eight Dovekies.

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Watching Razorbills at Little Island Pier

A boat trip around the Chesapeake Bay-Bridge Tunnel provided Great Cormorant, Common Eider, Long-tailed Duck, thousands of gannets, and, most notably, King Eider.

Trumpeter Swans and Sandhills Cranes are two other sightings in the last weeks of February.

March, which is typically a slow month in Virginia, forced me, Walker, Baxter, and Tucker to migrate north to Pennsylvania. Our mission was to see the rare Mexican endemic Black-backed Oriole continuing at a feeder in Lancaster, and an individual thats’ provenance has been greatly debated.

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Black-backed Oriole

During the trip we birded a bit in Virginia, seeing forty Red Crossbills on Reddish Knob.

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Red Crossbill (a close second to Snow Bunting)

We also did some birding in PA, seeing Bullock’s Oriole, Ring-necked Pheasant, thousands of Tundra Swans, and re-finding a Eurasian Teal after it disappeared for a month.

During an afternoon in late March, I recived a listserv email regarding a first state record Prairie Falcon found in downtown Alexandria. I arrived the next day, finding the bird perched on the power plant. The bird was kind enough to fly over the D.C. border, so I added it to that list as well.

Mid April showed the beginning of spring migration. I birded locally, finding many migrants including Mourning and Wilson’s Warblers, and some possible breeders along the Rivanna River.

Through late April to mid May, the BRYBC did club trips from the pine savannah of Sussex County to the high elevations of Highland County, seeing Red-cockaded Woodpecker, Swainson’s Warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Alder Flycatcher, and Black-billed Cuckoo.

Late May marked another great jump in my yearlist total, when Baxter, Tucker, and I spent the first days of summer birding VA Beach and the Eastern Shore.

We saw Mississippi Kite, Gull-billed Tern, Red Knot, Northern Bobwhite, Dickcissel, Black Tern, Whimbrel, Piping Plover, White-rumped Sandpiper, Chuck-will’s-Widow, and Swallow-tailed Kite (very rare).

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Swallow-tailed Kite

Immediately following my trip to the beach, my dad and I took a road trip to Maine, seeing Gray Jay, Olive-sided Flycatcher, lots of breeding warblers, and some northern odonate species.

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Gray Jay

I then spent a week on Hog Island and attended the Coastal Maine Bird Studies for Teens Session. I met some amazing fellow young birders, and developed an understanding for the natural history of Mid-Coast Maine, including birds, butterflies, dragonflies, plankton, crustaceans, carnivorous plants, and trees. Some notable birds include Bobolink, Northern Saw-whet Owl, Red Crossbill, and Ruffed Grouse.

We spent one day on Eastern Egg Rock, and was able to observe Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Arctic Terns, Roseate Terns, and Common Eiders from the blinds.

After leaving camp, I visited the prairies of southern Maine, finding an Upland Sandpiper, and another favorite bird of mine.

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Upland Sandpiper

In late June I was able to do some statelisting in New Jersey and New York during a family vacation. I birded Central Park and Jamaica Bay, seeing some more common woodland and coastal species.

July was fairly quiet, aside from a Mission Trip to Farmville, where I was able to boost my Prince Edward County list up to 70 species, and see a new region of the state: the Southern Piedmont.

Late July brought another family road trip, this time to Harper’s Ferry and Antietam, D.C., Annapolis, and finally, Rehoboth Beach.

This trip allowed for more casual statelisting in Maryland and Delaware, as well as the opportunity to bird Bombay Hook NWR a bit, where I refound the Little Egret, and also saw my long awaited lifer Long-billed Dowitcher. I reached a Delaware statelist of 86 by the end of the trip.

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Little Egret

In the last days of summer, I birded around Southeastern Virginia for the day, adding Caspian Tern, Wood Stork, and Anhinga to my Virginia Lifelist.

Shorebird migration got started in early September, when I saw White-rumped Sandpiper, Stilt Sandpiper, Wilson’s Phalarope, American Golden-Plover, Buff-breasted Sandpiper, and Red-necked Phalarope.

Notable non-shorebird species include Common Tern (first county record), Brown-headed Nuthatch (Piedmont), Barn Owl, and Black Tern.

Peak fall migration brought me, Baxter, and Gabriel to the Eastern Shore, where we participated in the Kiptopeke Challenge, a fundraiser for the Coastal Virginia Wildlife Observatory.

We won with a total of 132 species, and saw Saltmarsh Sparrow, Western Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Delmarva Fox Squirrel, Long-tailed Skipper (rarity from Gulf Coast), and lots of other great wildlife.

Birding Shenendoah National Park also provided good numbers of neotropical migrants such as Philadelphia Vireo.

Tbroughout October I birded quite a bit locally, seeing rarities such as Loggerhead Shrike and Clay-colored Sparrow.

A pre-dawn warbler fallout at Rockfish Gap was also notable, where I saw eleven warbler species perched inside an old motel sign.

In early November I attended the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival in South Texas. I got 59 lifers, and was able to finally go west of Ohio.

Some notable species seen were Tamaulipas Crow (after a decade of extirpation from the U.S.), White-collared Seedeater, Audubon’s Oriole, Aplomado Falcon, Snowy Plover, Whooping Crane (approx. 600 individuals in the wild), Northern Beardless-Tyrannulet, Zone-tailed Hawk, Ringed Kingfisher, Fulvous Whistling-Duck, Scaled Quail, Sprague’s Pipit, Pyrrhuloxia, and Lark Bunting.

Seeing a completely new ecosystem with unfamiliar landscapes was exhilarating, from the desert hill country of Starr County, to the expansive coastal grasslands of Cameron County. With these new habitats, the birds, insects, and plants were all unfamiliar.

Another great aspect of the festival was connecting with fellow birders from across the nation. The trip total was 188 species: 126 of those were seen in a single day.

The second half of November and most of December were quite busy with holidays and exams. I was able to do some birding at a local park and throughout Augusta and Rockingham Counties, seeing Eurasian Collared-Dove, Long-tailed Duck, Greater White-Fronted Goose, and Cackling Geese. I twitched a continuing Snowy Owl in Rockingham twice, to no avail.

After months of working and saving up, I was able to purchase a new camera setup for Christmas: the Canon EOS 7D Mark II with the 400mm f/5.6L.

The days following Christmas were spent trying to pick up any last Virginia Yearbirds.

I visited Dulles Airport in search of Rough-legged Hawks, but was pleasantly surprised when I refound a Snowy Owl that hadn’t been seen at the airport for a couple weeks.

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Snowy Owl: a former nemesis, and my 295th VA Yearbird

I birded a bit in Charlottesville, seeing an American Tree Sparrow.

The next day, the club did a trip to Northern Virginia, where we saw Orange-crowned Warbler, Long-tailed Duck, Clay-colored Sparrow, Eurasian Wigeon, and the Snowy Owl at Dulles Airport.

It was a phenomenal year of birding: I got 109 lifebirds, and my Virginia Yearlist ended with 295 species. I have detailed posts of all my birding experiences since the start of my blog in late May, so please take a look. As always, I look forward to resetting the yearlist and doing this all over again—the thrills of birding!

The Last Days of the Year

Thursday Evening:

After several days of celebrating Christmas with family in Arlington, I decided to make a quick detour off of the route to Charlottesville.

We arrived at the bustling Dulles Airport, and entered a parking garage, ascending to the roof of the garage.

I exited the car into the cold, brisk, 18 degree air, with winds upwards of 20 mph. I set up my scope, and began to scan for Rough-legged Hawks.

Short-eared Owls were abundant, with around eight invidividuals working the expansive runways. Northern Harriers were common as well, with several females and immatures and two beautiful Gray Ghosts.

I scanned thoroughly for about an hour, only finding an abieticola Red-tailed Hawk.

The sun was just about to set, and I gave up on the Rough-legs. I started to scan the airport gates, lightposts, trucks, and terminals for a Snowy Owl that hadn’t been for ten days.

Immediately, a large white blob came into my scope view: it was the Snowy Owl perched on a lightpost!

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Snowy Owl, Virginia Yearbird #295

Friday Evening:

I was dropped off at Greenbrier Park, a park in Charlottesville with a creek, woods, and tallgrass fields. I continued down a trail that came out to an open field behind the Pepsi Bottling Plant.

I was on the search for an American Tree Sparrow: one of my favorite birds.

Flocks of White-throated Sparrows and Song Sparrows were scanned, and a Winter Wren called from the creekside.

I heard the distinctive call of the tree sparrow from the opposite side of the creek. The bird popped up to the top of the brush, offering me my best views of the species.

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American Tree Sparrow

Saturday:

The caravan of birders arrived at Dyke Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Northern Virginia with Wawa breakfast sandwiches in hand. Logan was already busy scanning the masses of ducks and gulls on the ice and snow laden Potomac River.

Common Mergansers flocked overhead, and Mallards, American Black Ducks, and Ring-billed Gulls sat on the ice.

We continued up the walking trail, passing countless joggers: most of them enthusiastically pointed at a Bald Eagle nest saying “George and Martha are back!”

A car pulled off of the parkway, and out came Adit, a young birder from Fairfax that would be birding with us for the day. I had talked with him over text before, but never met him in person.

We decided to turn around and head back towards Dyke Marsh. As we walked, I heard a chip note. I immediately knew it was an Orange-crowned Warbler, a bird I had seen and heard constantly while in Texas. The bird was uncooperative, but with persistent pishing, he revealed himself for a fleeting moment.

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Orange-crowned Warbler

We returned to the parking lot, grabbed some hand warmers, and headed over to the Dyke Marsh boardwalk.

A large flock of sparrows foraged along the snowy path, consisting of great numbers of White-throated, Song, and Fox Sparrows. Swamp Sparrows were more furtive, calling from the safety of the reeds. Several Fox Sparrows sang their gorgeous song from the brush.

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Fox Sparrow

We came to the end of the boardwalk, where two Long-tailed Ducks swam.

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Long-tailed Ducks

We watched their behavior and even successfully pished the ducks a bit closer.

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Long-tailed Duck

A very excited Winter Wren came extremely close, calling and hopping around frantically.

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Winter Wren

Back in the car, we drove to Laurel Hill Equestrian Center, in hopes of finding a continuing Clay-colored Sparrow.

After some searching, we came across a flock of White-crowned Sparrows, and quickly found the Clay-colored foraging in the grasses.

I got some better photos once the sparrow perched in a bush.

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Clay-colored Sparrow

We departed and stopped at McDonald’s, where I ate my first Big Mac.

Filled with fries and burgers, we grabbed the scopes and set up on the dock of Pohick Bay Regional Park. A Redhead came quite close.

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Redhead

We scanned a flock of several hundred Gadwall and wigeons, looking for a continuing Eurasian Wigeon. Baxter spotted the wigeon, and we quickly got everyone on the beautiful adult male bird, worried by a hunting boat slowly working approaching the flock.

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Eurasian Wigeon (center bird, sleeping in back)

A Ring-billed Gull flew by, offering good flight shots.

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Ring-billed Gull

Due to the short winter days, the sun was already approaching the horizon, and we were running low on time.

We headed south to Occoquan Bay NWR, and walked the trails to the riverfront. It was rather quiet, aside from a couple thousand aythya ducks on the other side of the river. A Common Loon flew overhead.

We started the fifty minute drive to Dulles Airport, where we hoped to see the Snowy Owl I refound several days before, as well as Rough-legged Hawk and Short-eared Owl.

After the stress of getting to the correct location, we arrived at the top of the parking garage. We whipped out the scopes and started to scan the fields and terminals. I spotted the Snowy Owl perched above the Five Guys in the airport. The bird was a lifer for several.

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Snowy Owl

After brief viewing, we directed our attention back to finding Rough-legged Hawks. Short-eared Owls and Northern Harriers were flying through the fields and chasing each other around.

The intense scanning resumed for about an hour until the sun had set, and we realized that the owl had departed without us noticing.

We said goodbye to Adit and began the drive south, ending the day at Chipotle, as all good days of birding end.

Winter Birding in the Valley

We pulled off onto the side of a small road and exited, climbing up a small hill to find two Tundra Swans swimming in a pond. A nice rarity to start the day, and an Augusta County lifer.

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Tundra Swans

We hopped back into the car within a few minutes. Our next stop was the Fishersville Quarry.

Today, Gabriel would be taking us around his stomping grounds: the Shenandoah Valley.

We approached the quarry, and spotted a large flock of Canada Geese from the car. One of the birds was considerably smaller and daintier, with a more snappy flight: a Cackling Goose, and county lifer number two.

I grabbed my scope and we ran up to the overlook of the pond, only finding more Canada Geese, Gadwall, and a couple American Coots.

We continued down the winding roads through hilly pastures and plowed cornfields, scanning roadside ponds for ducks or geese. The Blue Ridge Mountains stood in the background to the East.

After turning onto Guthrie Road, we slowed down and scanned for large lark flocks in hopes of finding a longspur. We got out and scanned more, hearing several Horned Larks give thier piercing, two-note call overhead. A large flock of over seventy Fish Crows circled in the distance.

Once we started down Hall School Road, we found that the crow flock reached several hundred birds, so we felt obligated to stop and scan for potential crow rarities.

Finding nothing, of course, we headed north towards Rockingham, seeing a gorgeous abieticola Red-tailed Hawk along the way.

We arrived at the Walmart Distribution Center, a spot that had recently been the home of a Snowy Owl. I unsuccessfully tried for this bird several days prior, and the bird was then found shortly after I left. I hoped for better luck this second time.

The expansive plowed fields on either side of the entrance road were scoured, but we did not find a massive white bird. The calls of ravens and larks filled the air.

We spent a great deal of time scanning, and then tried to get better vantage points of the Walmart from different roads, as well as other large fields that could host the owl. No owl was found, but I got a nice photograph of a White-crowned Sparrow.

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White-crowned Sparrow (with silos in the background)

Gabriel took us to Rockingham Memorial Hospital ponds, where we found a sizeable flock of Canada Geese. We found a nice rarity sleeping in the flock: a Greater White-fronted Goose.

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The rarity was of course the only bird in the entire flock that never raised its head

We almost overlooked a group of ten Cackling Geese, which was the new high count for the county (it doubled the previous record on eBird!). The small size, tiny bill with steep forehead, silver plumage, and white ring on neck gave the birds away.

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Cackling Geese

I also observed the feeding habits of the geese; due to their short necks, the cacklers held their head at an awkward 90 degree angle in order for their bills to reach the ground.

Back in the car once again, (lazy valley car-birding) we checked Lake Campbell, finding Ruddy Ducks, Ring-necked Ducks, a Redhead, and most notably, a Greater Scaup.

We also stopped at Silver Lake to see the gorgeous Long-tailed Duck that had been hanging around. A good bird that I hadn’t seen since February.

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Long-tailed Duck

After soaking in the amazingness of the duck, we checked the Walmart and it’s surrounding areas once again for the owl, to no avail.

Our last stop in Rockingham County was the Shenendoah Produce Auction, where a small population of Eurasian Collared-Doves can be found.

We saw fifteen doves, and listened to them sing their beautiful songs. Another great achievement was the eBird list with only non-native bird species.

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Eurasian Collared-Dove

Badger Road in northwestern Augusta was our last stop for the day. Aside from the great numbers of White-crowned Sparrow, it was was rather quiet, so we called it a day.

RGVBF Day Five: Desert Birding and Return to Salineño

I quietly packed my bags to avoid waking my dad, and said goodbye to my temporary home for the past several days. I grabbed my lunch bag in the lobby before walking out into the dark, cold, and windy atmosphere of South Texas.

The Beamer’s pulled up shortly, followed by the Staengl’s, and we hopped on I-2 West, begginning the journey back to the arid hillcountry of Starr County.

After a much-needed stop at the McDonald’s, we were back on the road and arrived at the familiar backroad to Salineño shortly after dawn.

Desperate for seedeaters, we made a beeline for the sandy trail to the river canes, tallgrass, and brush. Once again, the Common Yellowthroats, Orange-crowned Warblers, and Lincoln’s, Swamp, and Olive Sparrows were numerous.

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Olive Sparrow

We continued down the trail and walked down onto a rocky area, and then climbed back up a steep hill that gave a nice, elevated view of a large cane patch. Gathered under the remains of a dead, charred tree, we listened for the call of the seedeater and scanned the bank of the island.

Our patience began to wear until we heard an unusual call and watched a finch-like bird flutter from the canes into a shrub, and then onto the top of a mesquite. We all raised our bins to find a tiny, buffy, tail-less, small-billed bird with a deeply curved culmen: seedeater!

The teeny bird swooped down to start feeding in the canes.

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White-collared Seedeater (look at the tiny tail!)

A more fresh and colorful individual emerged from the canes and perched on a nearby shrub.

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We watched the birds hop from cane to cane as they gleaned seeds, a behavior that they are rightfully named after.

After a long time spent watching these adorable birds, they quickly vanished as the sun continued to rise, and returned to the safety of the canes.

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Looking at seedeaters

We made our way back towards the landing, finding three beautiful Lark Sparrows perched on a bush out in grasses.

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Lark Sparrows

Back at the famous Salineño feeding station, we pulled up some chairs and talked with the owners while viewing some of the wildlife.

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Long-billed Thrasher

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Ladder-backed Woodpecker

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Altamira Oriole

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Desert Cottontail

We returned to the car, finding many White-winged Doves along the way, and drove less than a minute to the Salineño Dump Road. The scenery was quite hilly, and dotted with mesquite and different varieties of cactus.

After a quick goldfish snack, we started walking down the gravel road.

Theo spotted a Black-throated Sparrow on a large Blackbrush, a striking bird we were all quite excited to see.

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Black-throated Sparrow

Otherwise, the road was rather quiet, so we decided to check out Falcon State Park, finding a group of Collared Peccaries along the way.

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Javelinas

After parking at the visitor center, we explored the thick huisache and mesquite brushlands, where we found many insteresting plants.

We continued on the rocky path, finding a Vermillion Flycatcher, Greater Roadrunner, and several singing Curve-billed Thrashers.

The birds were few and far between once we got deep into the expansive brushlands. After completing a two mile loop, we returned to the car empty-handed and had a quick lunch before departing.

Our next stop was a native plant nursery called Rancho Lomitas that I had found in my research. The ranch has a large population of desert species such as Scaled Quail, Cactus Wren, and Pyrrhuloxia.

We hit the road due east, starting the journey back to Harlingen.

After almost an hour of driving, our GPS guided us to a random backroad that came to a dead end. Puzzled, we discovered that we had mapped to the opposite side of the ranch, and the entrance road was still and another hour away. I called the Staengl’s car, and learned that they too had been mapped to anotehr random place.

After great confusion, we found the correct coordinates, and soon turned onto a small dirt road that led to an arch bearing the words “Rancho Lomitas”. We made it!

We pulled into the lot and unloaded, first noticing the great diversity of cacti, including different species of prickly pears, hedgehogs,  and cholla. The landscape was hilly, the earth dry and sandy.

We met the man who managed the nearby feeding station, and he escorted us to several lawn chairs that faced a multitude of different feeders only a couple feet away. After sitting down and getting situated, we sat quietly, binoculars and camera at the ready.

A good number of Green Jays began to emerge from the thickets, and we soon had fifteen within a couple feet of us. We studied the intricate plumage of these vibrantly-colored birds.

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Green Jays

Suddenly, a large brown-and-white mottled bird flew onto the ground and hopped quickly through the maze of flower pots before jumping up onto a feeding tray two feet from Ezra’s head: a Cactus Wren! The bird grabbed some seed, and flew off. We were all breathtaken by the size and habits of this beautiful bird, both of which resembled a thrasher.

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Cactus Wren (Photo by Ander Buckley)

A Curve-billed Thrasher made a quick appearance.

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Curve-billed Thrasher

Black-crested Titmice and Altamira Orioles approached to feed, and a secretive White-tipped Dove was found.

Suddenly, we heard the sound of wingbeats approaching, and then the thud of several birds landing on the ground and in the trees. Eight bold Scaled Quail scampered up to the flock of jays and began to feed. Another two shyer birds advanced through the nearby huisache, watching us from the safety of the thick foliage.

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Cottontops

We spent almost a half hour watching the quail, until we decidedly to explore the nearby desert habitat.

It was rather quiet until we found a secretive Pyrrhuloxia. The beautiful adult male provided brief views. Here’s a photo Paul got later in the afternoon:

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Pyrrhuloxia (Photo by Paul Buckley)

Some of us checked out a back road that produced our first views of a nice Bewick’s Wren. The grays and sandy colors of its plumage provided great camouflage in the desert habitat.

Another bird flew into a nearby mesquite, and I raised my binoculars to find a totally unexpected bird I hadn’t even thought I would see during the trip: a Lark Bunting. The bird flew deep into the brush, but we were able to pish it out onto a telephone wire and get everyone else on it.

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Lark Bunting

It was nice to see this bird, as it had been somewhat of a nemesis of mine. We all heard a probable Lark Bunting during a morning flight on the Eastern Shore in September.

Further down the road we came across a Great-horned Owl on the telephone wire.

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Great-horned Owl

We then split into two groups: one stayed at the ranch to watch the feeder birds, while the other headed back to McAllen to look for Green Parakeets.

I chose the parakeet car, as did Baxter, Tucker, and Ezra.

After about an hour and a half of driving (and prank calling billboard phone numbers), we arrived at a roost I had found on eBird. Great-tailed Grackles covered the telephone wires, palmettos, and rooftops. Several Green Parakeets were scattered among the grackles on the wires.

We pulled into a gas station parking lot and found a couple hundred parakeets flying around in large flocks. Many birds perched on the palmettos, where they gave their racous calls, preened, and foraged.

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Green Parakeets at dusk

The sun had almost set, so we decided to check out a nearby Red-crowned Parrot roost.

There, we found dozens of the striking, robust parrots flying around: the mascot of the 2017 RGVBF, and our last bird of the trip (besides Great-tailed Grackle, of course).

The sun set, and we went to Chipotle for the last meal. Gabriel arrived, as well as the others from the ranch. We celebrated the week of amazing people and exotic birds.

After the festivities, my dad and I departed, beginning the long journey to Houston, where we would take a 5:00 am flight home to Charlottesville.